“The Poor Always Ye Have with You”

Judas was indignant. As he watched Martha’s sister Mary anoint Jesus’s feet with expensive ointment, he asked, “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” In telling this story, John adds that Judas didn’t particularly care about the poor; he was just looking for an excuse to complain about what he saw as an exorbitant expense.

Jesus responded by explaining that there was, in fact, a good reason for this expenditure, more important than the general priority of giving to the poor:

Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.

For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

John 12:7-8; see also Matthew 26:10-12, Mark 14:6-8

This week, I’ve been pondering the Savior’s sobering observation that we always have the poor with us. Here are some lesson’s I’ve extracted from it:

First, I’m sure He didn’t mean to encourage complacency. Lorenzo Snow, in fact, drew the opposite conclusion: “The poor have always been an especial charge of the servants of God,” he said, citing this scripture (Journal of Discourses, 18:301a). So Jesus didn’t just mean to say that there will always be poor people. He meant to say that they will always be with us, that we will always have a duty toward them.

Second, specific acts of service take priority over general feelings of compassion. As Judas demonstrated, it’s easy to advocate for oppressed groups of people like “the poor,” and to complain about expenditures which appear less important than that broad priority, particularly when it’s not your money. But it’s more useful to do the hard work of identifying real initiatives which can have an impact and enlisting others to help.

Third, while caring for the poor and the needy is a priority, it isn’t the only priority. Mary was right to honor Jesus just days before His death and to show her devotion to Him, even at some expense. There is more than one good cause in this world, and there is more than one kind of need. So don’t criticize people for investing in a different worthy cause than the one you would have chosen.

Finally, implicit in the Savior’s observation is a reminder that finite resources cannot solve an infinite problem. Three hundred pence may have sounded like a lot of money to Judas, but it was a drop in the bucket compared with the total need. When a problem is so big that you can’t hope to solve it, you can still do something, but you have to ration your efforts and avoid overextending yourself. As King Benjamin reminded his people after admonishing them to give to beggars, “all these things” must be “done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27).

As I thought about these principles this week, I remembered the example of the Nephites during the first year of the reign of the judges. It was a tumultuous time, when charismatic leaders like Nehor and Amlici gained large followings and caused substantial turmoil. But church members generally remained sober and steady:

They did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.

Alma 1:27

Because of their steadiness, these church members began to prosper. But as they became more affluent, they didn’t lose sight of the needs of others:

In their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

Alma 1:30

These faithful Nephites were sensible and prudent in their lifestyles and in their giving. I particularly like the fact that Mormon described them as “liberal to all.” They weren’t stingy. They were generous and quick to share with their neighbors in need.

This sounds realistic and relatable to me. As much as I would love to entirely eliminate poverty like the people of Enoch (see Moses 7:18), I don’t see that happening any time soon in our current society. But we can pay attention to the needs of the people around us and meet those needs without judgment, without labeling people as worthy or unworthy of our generosity.

Today, I will reevaluate our family’s giving in light of the Savior’s ongoing admonition to care for the poor and the needy. I will strive to ensure that we are giving both liberally and wisely, so that our giving is sustainable over time. I will strive to move beyond a generalized empathy for the poor and invest in specific initiatives which effectively meet real needs.

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